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Plans To Revitalize Atlanta’s ‘Sweet Auburn’ District Conflict

March 14, 1988

ATLANTA (AP) _ ″Sweet Auburn,″ long the lifeline of black Atlanta’s business community, has lost its luster, and revitalization plans are hobbled by disagreement over what should be done in the district where Martin Luther King Jr. preached and Louis Armstrong played.

The city’s Auburn Avenue area was a child of segregation. For years, a soaring black middle and professional class was allowed to do business or offer services nowhere else. In 1956, Fortune magazine called Auburn Avenue the richest black business district in America.

The avenue was a cradle of the civil rights movement. But it was the movement’s success that eventually disseminated the middle classes to other parts of Atlanta and started Sweet Auburn on its decline.

Whether it can be renovated without its few remaining businesses being ″gentrified,″ and whether the old flavor can or should be restored, are issues along the avenue.

″Whatever is proposed, the older people in the area seem to disagree with it,″ said Gordon Joiner, a former chairman of the Martin Luther King Historical District Development Corp. ″They all seem to agree that the area needs to be revitalized, but that’s where the agreement stops.″

King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, his birthplace and his tomb are on Auburn Avenue, and some redevelopment proposals center on that.

The development corporation envisions reverting part of the avenue to the way it was when King was young. Others want to revitalize the entire district into an area where people again will come to do business, using its past as a tourist draw.

Atlanta has budgeted $2.4 million this year for Auburn Avenue-area landscaping, improvements on the still-functioning Municipal Market building and historic facade renovation. The city also hopes to get some help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Most grant money for the Auburn district has gone to the east end where the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change sits and not to the dilapidated commercial sector.

Nearly 500,000 visitors a year travel the two-mile-long avenue from downtown Atlanta to the King Center.

En route, visitors pass a few remaining bars, beauty shops, small restaurants and boarded-up businesses. They pass a four-story brick shell of a building with the names of lawyers, dentists, accountants and doctors in peeling paint on the remaining shards of windows.

Prostitution and drug deals flourish along the avenue, a high-crime area at night.

The poor and the prostitutes were always there.

The Rev. William Borders, 82, who just finished his 50th year as pastor at the Wheat Street Baptist Church, remembers being propositioned years ago. ″They used to make a pass at me and I would say, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m the preacher,’ and they would say, ’I don’t care who you are. Do you want to date me or not?‴

Borders came to the avenue in the 1920s. ″It was a lot rougher out there then than it is now,″ he said.

″My mother used to tell us we were born too late to be in slavery and too early to be out of slavery.″

Borders was instrumental in getting some substandard housing replaced by projects.

Atlanta’s most prestigious black churches are still there, along with the national offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; black fraternal lodges; one of the nation’s first black-owned radio stations, WERD; and the Atlanta Daily World, the nation’s oldest black-owned daily newspaper.

The Masonic building, built by blacks in the early years of the century, sits atop an underground river. ″I’m proud to say we built it, and proud to say we ain’t seen a drop of water yet,″ said X.L. Neal, the Grand Master.

Old-line Atlantans remember the area for some of the best food in town, and an alluring smoky pungence from the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack is comforting assurance that not everything has changed.

Over time, the region became known as ″Sweet Auburn.″ In the 1930s and ’40s Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and others packed patrons into the Top Hat Club, now long closed.

The Royal Peacock hosted another generation of black entertainers such as Otis Redding and Ray Charles. It hung on for 25 years until it closed in 1973.

The Peacock has been leased by two white entrepreneurs who plan to reopen the second-story walkup as a blues and rock showcase.

″What visitors see of (black) Atlanta is a poor reflection of what the Auburn Avenue area was all about,″ said Daniel Moore, director of APEX, a privately funded organization building a permanent display of Atlanta’s black history on the avenue.

″For a number of years there have been plans for Auburn Avenue but no one has taken the task seriously,″ he said. He said a recent study about what might be done cost $240,000 and was one of a half-dozen over the past 10 years, all of them expensive.

″I don’t see much chance of anything major being done before the (Democratic National) Convention,″ scheduled for Atlanta in July, he said.

Politically, more has been said than done about the area, and no unified leadership has emerged.

″There are a number of factions on the avenue, and the avenue does not have a czar to speak for all factions,″ said Portia Scott, whose family has published the Daily World since 1928. ″There are a whole lot of themes here, not just Martin Luther King.″

Ben E. Smith, a lifelong Auburn Avenue area resident and nightclub owner, agrees.

Of a move to put city funds from a defunct project into the area, Smith said recently, ″I’ll make sure the King Center doesn’t get everything. Everything can’t go to the gravesite.″

Smith, who heads the Sweet Auburn Merchants and Professionals Association, is urging unity among the remaining businesses to assure their interests are covered in any revitalization plans.

Smith, Ms. Scott and others fought hard against plans to tear out seven businesses on the avenue to make room for a black studies library and research center. Fulton County officials have agreed to try to find an existing vacant building for the center instead.

″There is a diehard need for restoration that does not displace the merchants,″ Smith said, adding that it is equally important to ″keep the history and character of Sweet Auburn,″ a street described by many Atlantans as one of the few in town with any character left.

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